Idiot! Karla could only form a few coherent words, all circling back to the same theme. Moron! Fool! Who cares about three days of work? Who cares if one bone on Raven isn’t like the others?
She did, was the obvious answer. If Kio hadn’t before, he did now. So that made everybody.
Tears cut channels through the permanent layer of grime on her face. She cried in cycles, huddled in the corner of the little room under the loose floorboard, as dust drifted about in a shaft of sunlight shining on featureless walls. When she could be angry, she dried her eyes, and reread the letter because it had nothing to do with Kio. When she couldn’t, other thoughts chased each other’s tails: how she could not face him right now out of shame, how uncertain she was that Raven would work with one solid bone, how Kio never had taken Raven seriously now that she thought about it, how they sometimes raced paper boats on the reservoir, and he almost never won.
That last thought made her eyes so leaky she had to put the letter down so as not to stain it with her tears. But it didn’t matter. Karla had it memorized.
I am so sorry. If you’re reading this, we have failed to wrest the castle out of the hands of the Rokhshan. We’ve either been imprisoned, executed, or sent back to the surface to die. You are the last surviving Harpooneer.
That was where she got the last name she gave herself: Karla Harpooneer. Everyone in the library’s books had a surname. Kio went by Rokhshan without even thinking, and assumed she did too. But any fool looking at them could have seen they weren’t really cousins. If there had been any fool around to do so.
You are the only one left who can carry out our mission. We may have failed, but more people will come seeking shelter, and if House Rokhshan still holds this castle, they’ll fall like we did.
It was coming: the part she always skipped. The reason she could never let Kio see this room.
The Rokhshan betrayed us from the beginning. They never had any interest in letting us aboard. Land-folk are nothing but slaves to them, livestock to be harvested and thrown away. If we’re ever going to be free, our war cannot fail. As long as you’re alive, it hasn’t.
Six years ago, Karla and Kio had theorized that warmth radiating out from the citadel helped make Nashido habitable. Kio hadn’t wanted to get that near the heartsphere, so Karla had gone exploring on her own to seek out the source of the effect. She’d conceded to Kio, though, that she should make a thorough and methodical plan to canvas the outer citadel. She had begun her search in the complex of rooms under the reservoir: a twisting labyrinth of small storage chambers, some of which they kept food in, some of which held mysterious pipes, and one of which was empty, with the loose board.
There were no clues other than the floor not sitting right–years of dust had eliminated any tracks. But something about the room struck Karla anyway. She’d taken three turns to get there: not a place anyone was likely to stumble into by accident. Kio never would.
It was odd to find unused space anywhere on Nashido, especially this close to the heartsphere. The hangar and the upper towers were one thing. But this was in the oldest suite of rooms the Rokhshan had ever built. Why was it empty?
A suppressed thought fired in her brain. Someone had been here. Recently.
Gingerly, she had reached down for the floorboard. That was where she’d first found the hidden letter. After that, she’d forgotten her plan altogether.
In the years since, she’d read the first half four times, the second half more than a hundred.
I wish it hadn’t turned out this way, Karla. I wish I could say I did everything I could have done to protect you. But I didn’t. I didn’t fight hard enough, didn’t lead well enough. Now all I can leave you is this letter.
How long will it take you to find this, I wonder? Will you remember what it’s like on the surface? If I had more than one candle, more than one piece of paper, I could tell you such stories, my beloved little one. About fireflies, and jellyfish, and all the things they don’t have in the sky. About trees! There are so many kinds of trees, Karla. Please tell me you remember at least one.
Karla leaned her head back into a corner and breathed. She knew vines, and vegetables, and moss. But the surface she saw was a quilt, and the trees might as well have been so much green thread. She’d asked Kio about them once, and he’d showed her a picture in a book. Of course.
No matter how long it’s been since I saw you, know that I love you more than everything in the world put together. And I’d never ask you to do anything that might hurt you, if I had any choice at all. But people will seek the shelter of Nashido again. When they do, I’m begging you to ensure they have a way to get aboard.
You have to do what it takes, Karla. You have to destroy House Rokhshan.
I love you, forever.
As always, Karla shoved the note back under the floorboard as soon as she had finished reading. She hated this piece of paper as much as she needed it. Not just because it was her only link to her mother, and thus came to stand for all the emptiness surrounding her absence. Not because she could never tell Kio about it–shouldn’t even have been using her mother’s name as an oath, since he still swore on the Rokhshan’s Benefactor–and so he would never know they had been born in two different worlds.
Karla hated Mara’s letter because if she’d found it in the first few days she and Kio had spent alone on Nashido, she couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t have killed him. And he had never once deserved to die.
Of course, she couldn’t be sure of anything about those days. Trying to call up her earliest memories only led her back to her dream: the birds, the green cloud, the fire.
And Mara couldn’t have known the only one of the noble lords of Nashido remaining would be a child the same age as her daughter. Or that Karla couldn’t imagine him wanting to enslave anybody.
But whether she’d been manipulating her or not, Karla felt manipulated. What did it say about Mara that she wanted her daughter to continue her fight after her death?
What did it say about Karla that she loved her mother anyway?
Lurching to her feet, she shut the door of the empty chamber, and stumbled around the three turns. She didn’t know why she’d come here. She needed to go somewhere else, somewhere she could be free of being the girl who had blown up over losing part of her skycraft, the girl whose mother wanted her to kill her only friend.
But there wasn’t anywhere.
Karla clambered out of the outer citadel storage, raced through the statuary hall, past the upper vine gardens. The wind slammed into her, the incessant breeze she always ignored until she couldn’t. Her head spun when she stepped onto the reservoir rim and looked out, away from the murky waters, to the sea of clouds.
There was nowhere to go. Nowhere. It was all the same damn castle.
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